Among the pileup of world crises in 2020, one deserves more attention in the West. Hong Kong is facing a new set of challenges to its independence from China’s oversight, resulting in a nightmarish scenario for anyone who believes free and democratic societies should stay that way. These developments bring fresh urgency to Hong Kong’s preeminent filmmaker, the cinematic poet who has captured the fragility of his homeland through the decades. Wong Kar Wai’s films never felt so sad, or so important, as they do now.
While he hasn’t completed a movie since 2013’s “The Grandmaster,” Wong’s best work speaks to the human struggle unfolding across Hong Kong in recent times, in part because nothing this significant happens overnight. In fact, Wong’s movies chart Hong Kong’s rocky timeline with striking affection, though appreciating them in these terms requires some context the filmmaker doesn’t provide.
After it was freed from British oversight in 1997, Hong Kong became a “special administrative region” of China, with the idea of “One Country, Two Systems” ensuring its autonomy. Supposedly, Hong Kong’s status would be up for renewal in 2047 — hence the dystopian noir context of Wong’s eerie 2004 effort “2046” — but China couldn’t wait that long.
Last year, protests erupted across the region in the face of an extradition bill that allowed the mainland to prosecute Hong Kong residents for violating the country’s more stringent freedom of speech laws. Last week, China enacted a new security law that enables the government to charge activists for “subversion” of the government, a vague edict that enables authorities to prosecute everything from protest chants to fliers hanging in local businesses.
Wong’s movies have never directly engaged with such infringements on civil liberties, but they do capture a sense of isolation and displacement through a profound lens, bringing an intimate perspective to the fragile state of Hong Kong identity through the ages. In the ‘90s, Wong’s movies anticipated the 1997 handover in remarkable personal terms. The ravishing “Chunking Express” explored a pair of romantic stories surrounding Hong Kong policemen, both reeling from breakups and finding tentative new romance with troubled, alienated women living on the margins of society. The lush visual style lends a solipsistic quality to the experience, as its introverts struggle with the tentative excitement of new connections. The allegorical connotations are undeniable: Here is a nation exploring the potential of new beginnings.
So it goes with “Happy Together,” the Wong movie released the year of that fateful ’97 turnover. This melancholic chronicle of gay lovers whose dream vacation to Argentina takes a series of dark turns is often seen as a love letter to Buenos Aires. However, the movie functions in more general terms as a treatise on the complex relationship between Hong Kong, a major metropolitan hub filled with so much promise, and the people living in its confines, dreaming of better lives.
As Ho-po Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) roam the winding paths of rural Argentine, getting lost on the way to Iguazu Falls, they become the ultimate embodiments of life in exile. The movie begins with images of their passports, including the detail that they are British nationals, an overt acknowledgement of the forces that dictate their national identities. The story tracks their desire to achieve a sense of belonging in a world that gives them no natural habitat. Only once they travel around the globe — and reboot their lives after a nasty breakup — do they both come to terms with Hong Kong as their true home, in whatever form it takes.
Throughout “Happy Together,” Wong interrogates the city’s identity with remarkable visual conceits, at one point even turning the camera upside down and transforming the city streets into a dizzying inversion of itself. He seems to acknowledge the tenuous state of the region, anticipating more troubles to come. With “In the Mood for Love,” Wong flashes back to a dreamlike vision of ‘60s-era Hong Kong, setting the elaborate story of marital infidelity against the backdrop of a socioeconomic climate wrestling through its complex ownership issues to find some semblance of personality on its own terms.
Collectively, these movies chart the experiential story of Hong Kong, through sensitive emotions and private obsessions. They map out a vibrant society bursting with identity — the one that China now hopes to button up, censor, and feed into a wider dictatorial machine. Hong Kong needs help, but it also needs empathy, and one small way to take a step in that direction is to watch Wong’s films
Wong Kar Wai’s “Chungking Express,” “In the Mood for Love,” “Happy Together,” and “Fallen Angels” are all streaming on the Criterion Channel.